In Search of the Emotionally Persuasive Liturgy

Liturgophiles Gone Wild

Many of us who love and appreciate the Church’s rich liturgical tradition feel this way because of how it has affected us, especially over time. For us, the liturgy is deeply understood and deeply felt. But this is not the case a large majority of Christians. Despite the resurgence of interest in overtly liturgical worship (I use “overtly” because, as many have pointed out, all worship has a liturgy), the growth of the Church in the global South has been largely of the Pentecostal and charismatic variety.

When I dialogue about worship with my charismatic friends here in the United States, there is one central complaint about liturgical worship as they perceive it: it lacks heart. What they are really saying is that they feel very little if any connection of the liturgy with the emotions. Those of us in more liturgical traditions have our usual retorts: our emotions are felt deep within our hearts and less visible; the liturgy is highly emotional for the one who engages it; or, our counterbalance of reverence leaves us appropriately restrained. But there’s something here to which we must continually pay attention, and there’s something here I believe history helps answer. When you think of the “liturgy giants” of history—those who have written, reformed, championed, and bequeathed our liturgical heritage—one of the top five figures who must be mentioned is Thomas Cranmer, 16th century Archbishop of Canterbury and author of the original Book of Common Prayer. The more I study Cranmer, the more I’m convinced that he was keenly interested in an emotionally charged liturgy.

Humanism and Erasmus

Cranmer studied at Cambridge, and in his day, a new way of thinking was taking over the school in reaction to the stilted and overly rationalistic thought of scholasticism. This newer humanist philosophy taught, among other things, that society was moved to virtue and right living far more through emotionally charged persuasion rather than intellectually loaded head knowledge. Erasmus, a celebrity in his day, catalyzed the popularity of humanism, encouraging young minds that the true way to effect change in society was through persuading the hearts of people, particularly though the affective tool of rhetoric. Just the right words, in just the right place, spoken in just the right way had the power to cut straight to the heart of a person and move them.

Reformers like Luther and Melanchthon (both highly influential on Cranmer) took Erasmus’ insights and wed them with an Augustinian understanding of how the desires and affections work in the person. Their teaching was loaded with such affective talk. But these two thinkers modified Erasmus by gathering all these thoughts around one doctrine—the doctrine they saw as the root of all change.

Justification as the Root of All Change

Early enough in Thomas Cranmer’s career, he became convinced by what Luther and Melanchthon had to say about justification by faith alone. He bought hook, line, and sinker the notion that the only way a person’s heart can be moved is by hearing God’s Word of pardon in Jesus Christ. Temporary measures of persuasion—guilt, reward, even rhetoric—may effect superficial change, but only the news of God’s justification of the ungodly had the power to actually turn a heart. Cranmer, as a Christian and as a liturgist, was a diehard believer in the power of sola fide.

Bringing it All Together

When Cranmer sat down to pen the Book of Common Prayer (especially his 1552 edition), he attempted to bring all these thoughts to the table. He took the received (Latin) liturgy and didn’t merely translate it into English. He sifted everything through the tight-meshed grid of justification by faith alone. He weeded out from all the prayers and liturgical movements any notion that human effort contributed to God’s favor and blessing through Jesus Christ. He eliminated any sense of earned grace, and replaced it with grace as Divine Gift.

But, Cranmer abhorred the idea that his liturgy would be a mere doctrinal exercise. He employed the best of Erasmian thought in the way he worded the liturgy. Erasmus encouraged the use of flowery and sensory language as a way to pull on people’s emotional heartstrings. Cranmer didn’t shy away from these (one could call them “manipulative”) techniques. A common humanist device was the use of couplets and triplets—evocative descriptors—which by their sheer abundance would chip away at the walls of the human heart. One confession offers this couplet: “we have erred and strayed.” In another place, Cranmer redacted a received prayer, altering the language from “[grant that] our time may be peaceable” to “[grant that we] may pass our time in rest and quietness.” Cranmer, for the sake of emotional persuasion, wanted to concretize and make sensible the abstractions that distanced the worshiper’s heart from the liturgy. His well-known confession is highly evocative:

Almighty God…we acknowledge and bewail [evocative couplet] our manifold sins and wickedness [couplet], which we…have grievously [emotionally charged word] committed, by thought, word, and deed [descriptive triplet]…provoking [emotionally charged word] most justly thy wrath and indignation [couplet] against us.

Anyone studying the techniques of rhetorical persuasion popularized by Erasmus in the 16th century can clearly see that Cranmer believed in injecting every last ounce of emotion into Christian worship. Cranmer wanted the worshiper to deeply feel the very Gospel the liturgy unashamedly preached. It would have been the furthest thing from Cranmer’s mind to conceive of a “dead” or “heartless” liturgy. But more than that, it would have been hard for him to accept that his liturgy could be experienced by congregations as anything less than robustly emotional.

The Questions I Am Now Asking

If I’m honest, I can’t say that even my greatest liturgical experiences have been charged with that kind of emotion. On the flip side, I see the affective nature of charismatic worship gushing forth like a tidal wave. I know many liturgists, worship leaders, pastors, and worship philosophers are leery of that. But Cranmer encourages me to press pause on those (not unfounded) fears for a moment to ask:

  1. What is it about charismatic worship that so captures the heart of the average person?
  2. What is it about the ‘musical rhetoric’ of our brothers and sisters from these traditions that ‘works’ so well in persuading people?
  3. What anthropological understandings and assumptions stand behind the emotional intuitions of charismatic worship leaders and songwriters?
  4. Could it be that Pentecostal and charismatic (especially musical) techniques of persuasion are worth exploring and understanding, just as rhetorical techniques were mastered and marshaled by Cranmer in his day and age?

Again, I know some will find way too many discomforting problems with where this line of questioning leads, but in the spirit of Cranmer, I have begun asking them. I find comfort in the idea that maybe Cranmer had similar fears of how manipulation could go dreadfully off course with his day’s techniques. Those fears were certainly present among some of the other reformers, including Calvin and Zwingli, who consequently advocated for much musical restraint in worship.  And yet Cranmer’s confidence in the anchor of justification by faith alone gave him a boldness to step out on the waters...at least the waters of rhetorical excess. Perhaps a study of persuasive techniques by itself is unhelpful at best and downright evil at worst. But such an investigation coupled with a centering around the Gospel of God’s grace to sinners might just be powerful, beautiful, and biblical.

It’s leading me to explore several open-ended ideas. First, I’m thinking through what it would look like for more of our liturgy to be sung than spoken. Second, I’m looking for sung liturgy that is not merely an artificial “tuning” of prose or semi-poetic liturgical texts (there’s plenty of that out there, and, honestly, it doesn’t hit many I know as terribly affective). I’m looking for passionate melodies, affective language, and a more natural and modern musical feel (in other words, I’m looking for a musical lingua franca). Third, I’m exploring songwriting and production with what some might describe as “unlikely bedfellows.” I’m looking to a couple of friends in the charismatic tradition to help me produce my next album of modern hymns and liturgical music.

All-In Liturgy

Before these questions, though, we might end simply by being encouraged by one liturgical architect that, as many have said, liturgy is not meant to be merely a rote exercise or a cognitive enterprise. At its best, a good liturgy is meant to be an all-in experience. A good liturgy, as some have pointed out about the early church’s worship (see Lester Ruth, Carrie Steenwyk, and John Witvliet, Walking Where Jesus Walked: Worship in Fourth-Century Jerusalem), just might be one that makes us weep, rejoice, moan, groan, shout, raise our hands, and fall to our knees.

Finally, if some of these thoughts about Cranmer and emotional formation in worship have piqued your interest, I’ve written another post about it all here, offering some slightly different thoughts about worship and emotional formation.

Zac Hicks (D.Min. candidate, Knox Theological Seminary) is Canon for Worship & Liturgy at Cathedral Church of the Advent (Birmingham, AL), blogger at zachicks.com, and author of The Worship Pastor (Zondervan, 2016). He grew up in Hawaii, studied music in Los Angeles, trained in Philosophy and Biblical Studies at Denver Seminary, and his current doctoral work is in the theology and worship of the English Reformation. Zac's passions include exploring the intersection of old and new in worship and thinking through the pastoral dimensions of worship leading. He is a songwriter, having recorded seven albums to date. Zac has been married for over fifteen years to his wife, Abby, and they have four children—Joel, Jesse, Brody, and Bronwyn.